The summer following my first year of graduate school, I was playing Jenga at a birthday party with most of my cohort and their spouses and partners. The owner of this particular Jenga set had written an instruction on each block in permanent black marker, and we had played a few rounds when one guy slid a wooden block from the Jenga tower and flipped it over to see what it said.
“Truth!” he read. He thought for a moment, balanced the Jenga block on top of the tower and asked a question we had to answer truthfully: “When did you lose your virginity?”
All the blood rushed to my head. While unashamed of my virginity in the privacy of my own thoughts, I did not want to announce it to a birthday party of my graduate school peers.
I stared at the wobbly Jenga stack while everyone else answered: 13, 18, 20.
Sitting on the question-asker’s right, I was the last to speak. I thought about lying—it was a game after all, and had a different question been posed, people would have engineered their answers to make each other laugh. I wish I could say that I made an intentional decision to be truthful, but when my turn came, I was still vacillating between the truth and a lie.
“I’m still a virgin,” I said in a voice that sounded more apologetic than defiant. It was the truth, but it felt like the wrong answer.
Some people snorted. Others clapped. I wanted to explain myself. I wanted to leave.
I know what you’re thinking: This is the plot of a hundred cheesy youth-group skits. Big deal. But this happened on the heels of my first year of graduate school, a year that plunged me into spiritual confusion and emotional insecurity, and it felt like the last of my spiritual integrity depended on the answer to that question. It was as if that moment had the weight of countless other moments pushing on it—all of the other times over the past year when I chose not to acknowledge that I was different from my peers. Some were as innocuous as remaining silent when a professor asked if anyone could recite Scripture. Some felt like more significant betrayals—when someone slandered a friend and I said nothing to refute it. With each of these silences, my soul withered a little more until I barely recognized myself. And no one knew me well enough to see that anything was amiss.
I share this story because for me, that truthful answer was a subtle turning point. I share this story because at the most basic level, keeping your faith in graduate school requires the same thing that keeping your faith does anywhere else—living out what you believe. In the end, though, you cannot keep your faith in grad school—not as you’ve known it. By necessity, it will grow and change and deepen, a natural and healthy state of affairs, albeit an uncomfortable one.
The Foolish and the Wise
The wisdom of God is foolishness within the academy, where believing something as improbable as the Incarnation is a failure of logic and believing something as exclusionary as one true God is intolerant. The coursework itself will likely force you to grapple with your beliefs in a way that may feel like being “harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:5, NIV).
You may be tempted to clamp down on what you know to be true and weather the storm of your graduate experience without seriously examining what you believe at all. But we are not called to live in fear; we’re called to trust. Isaiah says of God, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast because he trusts in you.” If God is who He says He is, if everything we’ve put our hope in is true, then we can trust that the truth will hold up under our questions.
I have a friend working toward a Ph.D. in English, and her coursework has raised quite a few questions about her faith. “I’ve been carrying around answers my whole life,” she told me, “and now I’m coming up against the questions.” She says acknowledging the questions aloud is incredibly helpful: “When you pretend like they don’t exist, they eat away at you.”
Some of the most applicable advice on this score comes from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet:
I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
As you live the questions, realize that you don’t have to wrestle with them alone. Apprentice yourself to Christian thinkers—via book or podcast if you can’t find them in person. Find a church where you’ll be spiritually nourished. Most of all, address your questions to God, trusting that there are answers, even if you don’t know what they are. And when you’re feeling overwhelmed and impatient, remember there’s a difference between trying to understand a new theory and figuring out how it reconciles with Christianity. Sometimes you may be doing one, sometimes the other, but trying to do both at the same time can be overwhelming.
Even as you wrestle with your questions, remember you are studying alongside a group of people who are struggling with questions and wounds of their own. About halfway through my first year, one of my friends said she and her partner were looking for a religion, and what could I tell them about Christianity? We proceeded to have a conversation in which I was keenly aware of the Holy Spirit prompting my words, and I was more heartened than I’d been in months. As you get to know the members of your group, be mindful that God may have a role for you to play in their lives, but that ultimately no human wisdom can convince them.
Renewing Your Mind
One of the largest lies grad school feeds you is that you are too busy to do anything but grad school. It certainly feels true: There is more work to do than is humanly possible. For those of us used to getting all our homework done and doing it extremely well, this is almost impossible to accept. Hear me and save yourself some pain: You will never be able to do all of the reading. If you can accept that and move on, it’ll be easier to carve out time for the things that will keep you sane. Plan time to go grocery shopping, to move around outdoors, to sleep. You have to set aside time for these things; you have to fight for them.
Time with God is no exception. No matter how faithful you have been in the past, you will be tempted to spend your time in other ways. If you don’t make a concrete plan, your time with God won’t happen. Even with your concrete plan, sometimes it won’t happen. And if it doesn’t happen, your perspective on yourself, your studies and the world will quickly become distorted. I knew this to be true, and I still let it happen.
By the spring of my first year, I’d stopped reading the Bible entirely, and my prayers consisted of quick cries for help when I paused long enough to acknowledge I was in a spiritual desert. When I started spending time with God again, my soul was so parched that reading Romans felt like a mini-revival at my kitchen table. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2). Take these words to heart. You need your mind to be renewed, now more than ever.
My strategy is to spend time with God first thing in the morning because I know the rest of my day often will not go according to plan. Something I hoped to get done in two hours will really take four; the office hours I thought none of my students would attend are suddenly packed. Maybe your strategy will be different, but check in with yourself after a week or two and take an honest look at how consistent you are. And in the midst of striving for consistency, be gentle with yourself. It’s harder to spend time with God if you feel guilty for all the days you haven’t.
Let Us Not Give Up Meeting Together
When I started grad school, I moved 2,000 miles to a city where I didn’t know anyone. I had left a church and a community of Christian friends where I felt known and delighted in. I left that place expecting the transition to be difficult, but I had a plan. I would find a church and make Christian friends—“Christians are everywhere,” I told myself—but my community has come from an unexpected quarter: friends within my group, although they don’t believe in Jesus, are often grace to me.
Christians do not have a monopoly on love. Halfway through the year, frustrated at my failed attempts at finding Christian community, I woke up to the fact that I already had a community supporting me. No one could relate to the day-to-day struggle of the program and of life in a new place as well as my grad school friends. No one could talk me down from a moment of panic or relish a midnight trek home from the library better than they could.
That said, I am the only Christian within my program, and struggles of faith are not something I can readily discuss with my peers. My faith is a huge part of who I am that they don’t quite know what to do with, and not being fully known takes its toll. When I first arrived here, I searched for a church for months, and by January, I was so worn out that I knew if I didn’t commit soon I would be tempted to start staying home altogether. So I chose a church and started going. I got involved in a small group. I started helping with the junior high ministry. I wish I could say this church has become my family, but often church is where I feel the loneliest. I’m still searching for community there.
This fall, I did make a Christian friend, and I knew she was a kindred spirit right away. But her arrival was the grace of God, and the only good advice on this count is to pray.
The Road Appointed
C.S. Lewis, friend to Christian thinkers everywhere, has this to say about being in the academy: “The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.” If graduate school is part of your appointed road, your faith will certainly be tested and will likely be changed. But be assured God is able to keep you from falling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy.
Rachel Willoughby is pursuing her M.F.A. in creative writing. She is trying to pay close attention to the world.